When the answer is always no: Sex aversion and my sex-negative feminism
This post is for the July Carnival of Aces.
Content warning: Mentions of rape.
I can’t pull all the threads apart, and I don’t claim to be able to. Which came first, the ex-chicken or the scrambled egg? What I do know is this: there is a profound intuition telling me that kissing &c. are not for me, that if I were to do them, it would be a betrayal of my self. (aceadmiral, Aversive Me)
[A] relationship would give them social immunity— I would have to defend my unwillingness more than they would have to defend force. That makes sex a form of power which can be used against me and I don’t have an equivalent weapon. (Anonymous, F-ACE-ing Silence, p. 15)
The reason I use the term “sex aversion” in preference to “sex repulsion” is that repulsion to taking part in a sex act, or thinking about doing so, isn’t the primary way I experience my antipathy towards sex. In fact, I rarely find myself in such a situation. I see sex repulsion as being like a live wire that electrocutes anyone who touches it - but sex aversion is a force field that prevents anyone (including me) from even getting near the live wire. Situations trigger the aversion response, and cause me to depart from them, long before the repulsion response might activate.
The two quotes at the beginning of the post, by aceadmiral and Anonymous, also capture some of the forms my sex aversion takes. Sometimes it’s an intuition, a sense that is very hard to pin down, an inner conviction about what is and what is not right for me. This is very abstract and yet the most central to my identity and something that is always there, regardless of the specific circumstances.
Sometimes, it’s about boundary violation and power dynamics. This response tends to be triggered when thinking about a relationship or when I perceive that someone might want to approach me sexually or romantically. It can manifest as a sense of vulnerability or even fear.
This is the most difficult to talk about. When the answer is always no, when I will never give consent, then sex will always be rape. I usually avoid the R word, phrase it as “sex would be a site of oppression for me”. Saying that all sex is rape, even if I mean just for me, sounds radical feminist. The whole sex-positive movement defines itself in opposition to radical feminism. And the asexual community is very sold on sex-positivity. Sometimes it seems that to be anti-sex is to be a “bad asexual”. You always have to preface your discussion with “but it’s totally OK with me if other people have sex!” and “of course, I only apply this to myself” and a dozen other hedges to reassure people that you don’t mean to hurt the feelings of those who enjoy sex and that you’re not a prude or trying to moralize to others (i.e., sex cheerleading). The idea that sex-positive people might ever need to reassure me or check if they’re hurting my feelings or imposing their views on me, never seems to cross anyone’s mind. In my experience, the asexual community is not a safe space to talk about sex aversion/sex repulsion/sex-negativity. It’s designed to be a safe space for the sex-favorable and thus when I want to talk about my own experiences, I feel obligated to do so in a way that centers others and which implicitly assumes that I am the oppressor and thus need to modify my behavior for the sake of others.
Beyond this, our society is structured to give men significantly more power than women when it comes to sex. As a woman and as someone whose dress (hijab) is very strongly coded as female, when I am presumed to be heterosexual, I am presumed to be interested in men and will be approached by men who are interested in women. This means that most of the actual situations that confront me, and most of the presumptions that people make about relationships for me, are about confronting male power and about my own relative powerlessness.
I’ve noted for awhile that my sex aversion is much stronger in regard to men than it is towards women. While part of this is due to the underlying sex repulsion (which for me is particularly triggered by the prospect of penetration), I feel that a lot of it is also due to this fact of male power. That’s why I said that for me sex aversion can be about power dynamics.
Earlier this year I wrote about patriarchal interpretations of Islam and how they would severely disadvantage me as an asexual woman who cannot provide sex. More than that, the sex-normativity that permeates these interpretations marks me as someone who is inherently disobedient and who is a rightful target of male and societal discipline. This type of patriarchy isn’t limited to Islam or to Muslim societies, either, but if anything is more radical feminist than saying all sex is rape it’s saying that all men are potentially rapists, at least when it comes to me. I can see why Anonymous wrote anonymously and why she submitted her essay to a zine about topics that aces feel silenced about in the community. Talking about patriarchy in this way is definitely not welcomed in asexual spaces that I’ve seen. We can be feminist, but only as long as we’re sex-positive feminists.
The best thing an asexual blog ever did for me was Elizabeth’s post Sex-Positive Feminism vs. Sex-Negative Feminism, which pointed me to Lisa Millbank’s The Ethical Prude: Imagining an Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism. This was the first time I had ever read anything that both included an asexual perspective and brought asexuality into dialogue (however briefly) with sex-negativity. It inspired a lot of reflection and thought and helped me a great deal in developing my own asexual feminism.
I think ultimately that my sex aversion is more central to how I experience the world than my lack of sexual attraction (i.e., asexuality proper) is. It determines how patriarchy impacts me and it is part of my core sense of self. I don’t see it as separate from my asexuality but as flowing out of it. Not all aces are sex-averse (though 55% of us are) and not all sex-averse aces experience it the way I do, but for me the two phenomena are not detachable